As Minister of Public Safety & Emergency Preparedness, I hear frequently from many provincial governments, mayors and municipalities, the insurance industry, the scientific community and others about the costs and consequences of severe weather events brought on by a changing climate. I also hear about the powerful advantages of pro-active initiatives to prevent or mitigate those consequences.
This past week, I’ve had the chance to see both ends of that equation.
The costs and consequences of Climate Change are evident in British Columbia as vicious wildfires scorch the interior, triggered by a long stretch of hot, dry, windy weather and compounded by the devastation of the Mountain Pine Beetle. Tens of thousands of hectares have been burned. Dozens of communities have been threatened, prompting the biggest evacuation in BC’s history.
The federal government has joined forces with the Province and many others to provide every possible assistance to fight the inferno, keep people safe, make the evacuations as tolerable as possible, and begin the long process of recovery and recuperation.
On the positive side, this past weekend I attended celebrations along the South Saskatchewan River marking the 50th anniversary of Gardiner Dam. Inspired by the environmental disaster of the “Dirty Thirties” and built by the federal Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) between 1957 and 1967, the dam is among the largest earth-filled structures in the world.
It’s a vital example of visionary “green” infrastructure that controls flooding while generating clean hydro-power, enabling irrigation and value-added agriculture, supplying fresh drinking water to 60% of Saskatchewan’s population, and producing multiple sites for recreation and water-based economic development.
Climate Change is a global problem, largely the result of man-made emissions of greenhouse gases which pump pollutants like carbon into the atmosphere. One of the most obvious impacts is more frequent, more severe and more damaging weather events, particularly extreme cycles of floods and droughts and fires.
We’ve had extensive, costly flooding in Saskatchewan in two of the last five years. Parts of the oilpatch were shut in. Farmland was inundated. Crops and livestock were lost. Communities were damaged and isolated. Municipal and provincial infrastructure was washed away. Manitoba and Alberta have suffered similar flooding in recent years. Last fall, it was Cape Breton. This spring – Quebec, Ontario, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, and ironically (just a couple of months ago) the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. The losses have run into the billions.
In between the wet years, come the droughts and wildfires. BC this summer. Fort McMurray last year. Northern Saskatchewan two years ago. On it goes. And again, the losses are in the billions.
So it’s only logical that we’ve been working as hard as we can on a comprehensive, but very flexible, pan-Canadian policy framework to fight Climate Change while also building a successful economy at the same time.
From a public safety standpoint, the framework includes significant new investments in public infrastructure designed both to mitigate the consequences of a changing climate and to adapt to the things we won’t be able to prevent. More than $30 billion will be provided to the provinces for this broad purpose over the next 11 years.
In a province like Saskatchewan, a prime priority should be replicating the potential of Gardiner Dam. Think about large, new, innovative water control systems to deal with those sudden, violent summer storms that dump a year’s precipitation in a couple of days, and do so much damage. And then, when the water is gone, there’s a drought.
With astute science, engineering, planning and investment, we could develop of network of upstream water control structures – large and small, natural and constructed – together with properly designed channels, reservoirs, wetlands and wooded areas to manage waterflows in a smarter, more effective way, countering the debilitating cycles of uncontrolled floods and droughts.
A good place to start may be around the Quill Lakes where a potential water disaster is taking shape before our very eyes. There is also lots of potential – and need – in the Assiniboine, Qu’Appelle and Souris basins, and elsewhere.
With sufficient vision and determination, we could better protect livelihoods and infrastructure downstream, while creating upstream water-based opportunities for greater diversification, value-added economic development and recreation.